One of the pitfalls of being known among your friends as an aficionado of trash cinema is the joyful annoyance of gag gifts. I have several DVD collections of terrible movies, most of which seem to have been selected for titles that can most charitably be called insane. Looking for a film to give the Yakmala treatment to, I settled on Omoo-Omoo the Shark God because I am not a strong enough man to resist a name like that.
Tagline: Primitive Emotions! Wild Dangers!
More Accurate Tagline: Terrible Acting! Baffling Camerawork!
Guilty Party: Herman Melville. This is patently unfair of me to blame Melville, but I had to read Moby Dick in the eleventh grade, so fuck that guy. I have no problem with framing the destructive nature of obsession with the hunt for a giant phallic symbol while a couple of guys cuddle up under some sheets, but did we really need entire chapters on how to butcher whales? Oliver Twist didn’t have extended interludes on the proper way to beat an orphan; that knowledge was assumed. Anyway, Melville wrote the novel Omoo upon which this is supposedly based, but from everything I’ve read, that’d be like blaming Tolkien for the Bakshi Lord of the Rings. But I don’t really care.
Synopsis: A quick crawl prepares us for a story of native curses and the Omoo taboo in the south seas in 1874. The whole thing is signed by Melville, you know, just in case you had some doubts about its veracity. A small schooner is on the long voyage from San Francisco to the island of Taviti.
A narrator introduces the crew one by one. There’s Richards, the first mate; Texas, a character who completely vanishes from the film after his introduction; Chips, a shady suck up; and Jeff Garland, taking a break from Curb Your Enthusiasm and a great deal thinner for it. There is also Captain Roger Guy, sick and bedridden; his daughter Julie, who has no purpose other than to make the whole enterprise slightly less gay; and our narrator, Dr. Godfrey Long, whose porn-ready name conceals a blandness as thick as bathroom caulking.
Richards discovers a stowaway, and he’s about to throw the guy overboard when Jeff intervenes. A short and oddly girly fight follows, and the stowaway, a Tavitian native named Tembo who speaks in the third person like a really subdued wrestler, is allowed to stay.
The true purpose of the voyage (which was unclear to the entire crew, making this a forerunner to show-favorite Prometheus) involves the eyes of the Shark God. On a previous visit to Taviti, the captain stole the eyes of the Shark God idol, two priceless black pearls. Now misfortune dogs the Omoo tribe and the sickness the captain is dying from is a direct result of this violation of taboo. He’ll only be cured by replacing the pearls, but there are some long, pointless scenes of Tembo giving the captain some medicine, because casual racism is the best thing to pad screentime.
The boat arrives at Taviti, where Tembo’s dad, Chief Tari, greets them. Chief Tari speaks way better English than Tembo, making me wonder what happened there. Anyway, all that remains is for the captain to retrieve the pearls from wherever he’s hidden them, but fuck that, he’s totally keeping them. Richards beats the captain severely, and just before the old man dies, he gives the location of the hidden pearls to Julie. The curse passes on to her, who suddenly decides she wants the pearls, and generally starts acting like she’s been hypnotized.
Richards fools the newly zombified Julie into getting the pearls and starts to escape with Chips, but then decides that a jillion dollars splits better one way than two and shoots the guy. He’s almost to the boat when a tiger shows up to eat him, but Garland decides to use his last bullet on the tiger rather than the man with the gun. Richards shoots Garland for this, and honestly, I was happy to see stupidity rewarded so quickly. Of course, he only wings Garland and does the classic “throw the empty gun” move. Has that ever actually worked?
Tembo rescues Garland by spearing Richards in the back. The pearls are restored to the Shark God, and the curse is lifted.
Life-Changing Subtext: Other religions are primitive and weird, but don’t steal from them.
Defining Quote: As the captain begins to succumb to the curse in the Omoo village, Tembo takes care of him. There’s a long scene where medicine is administered, followed by a ton of chanting and waving of an amulet. Then, Tembo turns to the doctor and says, “Captain better now.” It’s impossible to communicate how funny this is, but a big part of it is pretending Tembo is just fucking with them. “Yeah, I did the Omoo dance. He’s cool. Now kiss Tembo’s big brown ass.”
Standout Performance: There is a single woman in the Tavitian village, and she’s white. The actress who plays her literally could not be whiter if she was voting for Mitt Romney. She speaks in stilted sentences, wanders around the jungle in an apparent trance, and at one point does a little Omoo dance around the idol. I think it’s supposed to be sexy, but if so, the director probably thought cerebral palsy was the hottest thing in the world.
What’s Wrong: One of the biggest sticking points I had was that Garland and Richards, the hero and villain, wear the exact same costume. There are three scenes of them fighting, but good luck determining who’s who. They both throw punches like they’re trying to gently insert suppositories into the other man.
And then there are shots of jungle fauna that are so incompetent that one looked like an ultrasound.
Flash of Competence: The central idea of a priceless treasure and a native curse isn’t a bad one and could have made for a rollicking and slightly racist action film.
Best Scenes: The film features some stock nature footage that has slightly less artistic import than similar shots in Survivor. While some of it is just quick shots of a monkey in a tree, or a snake in a tree, or pretty much any jungle animal in a tree, two sequences stand out as something more.
The first occurs while the schooner is becalmed. The doctor points out an octopus in some water he earlier states is opaque, but whatever. What follows is obviously someone pissing off a octopus in an aquarium. They shake the poor thing around, throw dead fish at it, and generally bother it until it shoots out some ink and gets the fuck out. The weirdest part is when the doctor posits some kind of esprit de corps among fish. Yeah, they’re schooling, but that’s only so predators will eat the poor bastards on the outside. They’re not the Strategic Fish Services.
The second happens when a pair of tigers throw down while an orangutan and the aforementioned ultrasound look on. I would say this scene exists to establish the presence of tigers for the third act, but that’s giving this movie entirely too much credit.
Transcendent Moment: Richards goes in to see the deathly ill Captain Guy, which still sounds like a generic thing you’d call the head of a ship rather than an actual name. The captain is in bad shape, and they have a long conversation within kissing range. Abruptly, the captain asks for water. As Richards goes to get it, the captain pulls a gun and says that the pearls are his.
Richards hulks out, beats the shit out of the captain, and leaves. Julie goes in and finds that the captain is dying now, but apparently doesn’t notice the bruises that must be covering the old man’s face. He reveals the location of the pearls, but Richards must have beaten the articles out of the captain, because this is what he says: “Trust nobody. Go yourself. Shrine of Shark of God. Find loose stone under left foot.”
Julie, displaying the keen attention to detail and knee jerk racism that served her father well, goes outside and accuses the chief of killing her father with all that crazy native medicine. Meanwhile, Richards just stands there, hoping no one notices his bloody knuckles or the fist prints on the captain’s face.
Omoo-Omoo the Shark God is exactly as good as the title suggests. Take that as a warning from the blind Shark God himself.